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Spotlight on … Makini Nyanteh

Spotlight on … Makini Nyanteh

February 2023

Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer
American Institutes for Research (AIR)

You’re a recent graduate of the Public Affairs Institute. What attracted you to this three-year executive program?

I was intrigued by the leadership development opportunities Institute offers. I wanted to participate in an experience like this with other senior-level communicators. I’d considered other offerings from other organizations, but I wanted to be with a cohort of professionals at the same general level of their careers — people who speak the same language. And the Institute offered exactly what I was looking for. You develop an intimacy with other members of that cohort, sometimes immediately. You develop deep connections.

In what way?

It’s significant that Institute takes place in a setting where the relationships aren’t transactional in the way some aspects of our work are. The learning is focused on community rather than individuals. It is expansive and, I want to emphasize, it is also a lot of fun. I realized I could get the academic part of the experience elsewhere — a la carte, you might say.

But how was what you call the academic component of the experience?

It was excellent, as it turns out. Very impressive, which was gratifying too, since it wasn’t the “headliners” — the presenters, the professors — that attracted me in the first place. That was a bonus. But again, it was the networking opportunity that I sought — to connect with people from the most admirable organizations, all eager to learn from each other. And one result is that the experience turns members into ambassadors for the Council. It can be a rite of passage. Serving on the executive committee and the board can have the same effect.

Having spent the more recent years of your career with AIR, what do you wish other public affairs professionals understood about the world of research and what it offers?

We don’t do any lobbying. We approach issues in a different way. I understand lobbying and its importance. But what we do is attempt to educate legislators and other policymakers. What I want government relations people to understand is that there is rich evidence-based data for understanding complicated issues — understanding in a deep and meaningful way. When we are educating policymakers, we’re not pushing for this or that particular issue. We’re not seeking short-term, transactional wins. Most policymakers and most public affairs professionals really want to do good, and they have the opportunity — if they make uses of the evidence-based research available to them — to understand the real-life consequences of policy. They can make use of the actual evidence rather than reducing a complicated question to a convenient anecdote.

If you hadn’t pursued the career you have, what might you be doing?

That’s easy. I’d have been a college professor — something I’ve had some experience doing, as an adjunct professor. I love teaching adults, but more than that, I love teaching itself. I got my first taste of it as a teaching assistant in my undergraduate days, when I was an economics major, and I love making economics accessible. I enjoy demystifying concepts. They say you should base your career choices in part on how you feel, and nothing is more invigorating to me than to see that “lightbulb” in a student’s face. So in my next career, I’d be a teacher, definitely.

Reach Makini at [email protected].

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